Developers: Team Ico, GenDesign, SIE Japan Studio
Publishers: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Fans of the cult classic, Shadow of the Colossus, and it’s less-successful predecessor, Ico, were thrilled out of their minds when Sony made an announcement at the 2009 Electronic Entertainment Expo: that they were planning another game within the same series. The game was originally planned for a 2011 release for the PlayStation 3, and gamers were eventually treated to a trailer revealing the key elements: a young boy, a gryphonic beast, mysterious enemies, and a massive ruin. The trailer was well-received by fans, but as time rolled on, the fan base began to claw for any updates it could get. E3’s often brought the question of The Last Guardian to Sony’s ear, but time and again the company would say that it “was complicated,” still in production, or shrug it off. It seemed for the longest time that the world would never see this game.
At the 2015 E3, The Last Guardian was re-announced with the promise of a 2016 release. While eager gamers were forced to endure to a few more delays, the game finally arrived in stores. Fans were even treated to a fantastic limited edition which, considering many of today’s bundles, was reasonably priced. It included a steel case, art book, beautifully-crafted statue of the featured characters, and soundtrack download code. The fans waited a very, very long time for this title, and Sony delivered.
I fell in love with Shadow of the Colossus but wasn’t so hot on Ico. The worlds both games created, however, were filled with lots of storytelling opportunity. The games cleverly deliver their narratives with little dialogue. Each game begins with a great mystery, a hero, and an impossible task. I was eager to experience The Last Guardian’s story. I’ve always been a HUGE fan of gryphons so when the beast was revealed in the original trailer, I was beside myself. The child hero offered opportunity for a sense of danger and conveyed the weight of the massive task ahead. The trailer provided so little, while at the same time presenting hundreds of questions. I was hyped out of my mind, only to be left wondering if I’d ever be able to experience the game.
This year, The Last Guardian was my first Christmas gift. I was excited beyond belief to come home and find the special edition sitting on my dining room table. Finally, it was mine to experience. Was it worth the hype?
While there isn’t much spirituality directly mentioned in the game, subtly, there seems to be something dark and occultic occurring within the walls of the nest. There are suits of armor inhabited by restless spirits, and the ending conflict (which I won’t spoil) reveals the darker purpose of the beasts within the nest itself. It’s all left quite vague, but it’s a little unsettling to say the least.
While there are certainly more graphic games out there, The Last Guardian earns its teen rating. The first time we are introduced to Trico, the gryphonic beast that co-stars in the game, he is riddled with spears, laying in a pool of his own blood, and clearly in pain. It’s difficult to watch, especially for an animal lover, and, sadly, it never gets much better. Trico constantly puts himself in harm’s way to protect his little nameless friend, and comes out of battles limping, bloodied, filled with spears, sometimes gasping for air. The final conflict is pretty shocking, both visually and through the events that unfold.
The boy takes his fair share of lumps, but they’re almost comical. He never bleeds or breaks anything, but if he falls too far, he drags one of his legs and limps pathetically while calling out for his friend. He gets kicked a few times and goes through some pretty rough stuff. Again, it’s a little hard to watch, but nothing terribly graphic.
There is none to speak of.
There is none to speak of.
There is none to speak of.
The Last Guardian is a story we’ve seen a million times, told in a way that’s somehow familiar but new. A boy is lost and alone, frightened and confused, as he wakes up in a strange place with only his questions to comfort him. He finds a wild animal in as much of a horrible situation as he is, and, in a moment of compassion and empathy, assists the animal. The beast, in turn, sees the little boy as its savior. Over time, the two come to depend on one another in an alliance that slowly blossoms into a friendship. While it’s hardly original, it’s no less endearing.
Trico and the boy are alone in this unfamiliar, cruel world. Each needs the other to survive and escape, and over time they risk their very lives to protect each other. The bond between them is genuinely heartfelt. The boy surpasses his fear of the massive, dangerous animal, and Trico overcomes his hostility towards humanity to protect and befriend one of them.
The themes of unconditional love, self-sacrifice, and devotion carry through the entire game. The world is cruel, unforgiving, and terribly hostile, but the two leading characters find comfort, compassion, and empathy with one another. Even if they are unable to understand each other’s spoken languages, they form a bond that goes far beyond the physical to find a deeper understanding that they depend upon for their very survival.
I’m going to kick off this review by addressing your absolute worst enemy in the game, as it’s perhaps the one and only con I can honestly present. Returning from SotC and Ico is the horrible, the cruel, the unforgiving Camera Angle Beast. That’s right, it’s back. In SotC, the camera would sometimes develop a mind of its own and orient itself in the worst possible location at the worst possible moment. Likewise, in The Last Guardian, most of my deaths were the fault of the camera suddenly deciding to focus on a leaf, a brick, something behind me, or something way off to the left while I was making a life-or-death leap or attempting to climb up Trico’s side during a fast-paced, time-sensitive scenario. It was honestly frustrating, as a lot of the game’s mechanics depend on managing difficult jumps, climbs, and tosses. When the camera angle suddenly decides to focus on the bum of your feathery friend while you’re trying to scale his broad back and angle a shield towards an enemy, things literally get hairy very quickly.
That aside, the rest of the game plays well. There may be some who would argue that the lack of a tutorial is a weakness in the gameplay, but it fits very well into the boy’s situation and further immerses the player into the experience. The boy, like the player, must learn what works and what doesn’t. There is very limited instruction throughout the game, but the pacing is such that you can take time to learn what the buttons do by romping around, leaping off obstacles, and tossing objects about without it effecting the flow of the story. Trico will sit by patiently, both while you learn how to control the boy and also later on when you learn how to train your feathery friend to follow commands. I will say this, however: The Last Guardian is not for the impatient, instant-gratification gamer.
You play as a character known only as “the boy,” who finds himself waking up in the middle of a massive ruin known to his people as “the nest.” He discovers that his body is covered in odd, rune-like markings and that he’s quite deep within the structure with very little hope of returning to his village. Shortly after stirring, he also discovers that he is not the only prisoner of the nest. Nearby, laying in his own blood and writhing in agony due to several spears sticking out of his flesh, is a bound beast known to his people as a “trico.” The boy attempts to calm the beast, but has to earn its trust by tossing the animal barrels of glowing substance to satisfy its hunger. Once calmed, the boy pulls the spears out of the creature’s body and loosens the its bonds. The trico (who goes by the name of his species from this point forward) seems to take a liking to the boy.
From this point forward, the object of the game is to find a way to the high central tower of the nest by guiding Trico through the maze-like labyrinth, solving puzzles every step of the way, and avoiding the mysterious suits of haunted armor that seem to have it in for our two heroes. Much of the difficulty comes from the fact that the boy cannot actually communicate in a direct manor with Trico, and must instead train the beast to understand basic commands. As the game progresses, Trico can learn to move in the direction that the boy points, to jump, sit, and stretch himself out so the boy can access high locations. Trico is a large animal and cannot wiggle into smaller places, so it’s often up to the boy to go on ahead without his feathered friend in order to locate barrels to feed him, unlock passageways, or scout out the route ahead. Trico, being large and agile, is able to leap great distances, climb narrow ledges, and fend off the haunted suits of armor.
The gameplay mechanics are fairly simple, as you have limited actions you can perform. The boy can jump or hold up a reflective shield he finds early in the game as a means to defend himself or escape enemies. He can climb, crawl, and creep along narrow passages, as well as climb onto Trico’s back and issue basic commands. There’s really no combat in the game, at least, not for the boy; all fighting is left up to Trico. The boy can push objects around or grab helmets off the spirit warriors to dismantle them, but he’s quite helpless on his own. When it comes to combat, his only tasks are to remove spears from Trico’s hide and calm the beast once battle is over.
The puzzles are brilliant, if not aggravating at times. There are no directional indicators, highlighted props, or dialogue (aside from the narrator’s occasional tips if you spend too long in an area). On top of that, there are countless red herrings that can lead you in circles. Occasionally, Trico can provide hints, as he fixates on certain locations or items. Ultimately, however, The Last Guardian is a brain teaser. Every step of the journey requires planning, observation, and a lot of patience. You’ll need Trico to perform certain tasks, stand in a certain location, or drop his tail down so you can move forward, but he doesn’t always understand that. Sometimes you have to wait for him to finish scratching his ear, or lure him forward with a treat before he’ll do what you want him to do. You also need to trust Trico, as the only solution to many situations is to take a blind leap, hoping he will catch you.
The story, again, is one we’ve seen a hundred times, but it’s told in a fresh, endearing way. The plot is never revealed directly and, just like in SotC, there’s a lot of room for speculation. The story is revealed slowly through the eyes of the boy. The player enters just as confused as the game’s protagonist, and, as the story unfolds, the player is led to be as emotionally invested as our hero. For the most part, the game is quiet, focusing instead on the body language between Trico and the boy, as well as backstory told through dreams and flashbacks. I have to say, the ending is going to pull at your heartstrings, and, for those seeking some closure, I implore you to sit through the credits for the “secret ending.” It’s well worth your time!
Visually, this game is beautiful. There is no transition between cutscene and in-game graphics. The attention to detail is mind-blowing, and I often found myself simply standing still to appreciate the effort put into everything. From the rising sun catching Trico’s fluttering feathers, to the grass waving in the wind, every tiny detail adds to a visually breathtaking experience. Trico’s movements are fluid and strong, lending to the feeling of realistic animal behavior. Often, he’ll express a lot of mannerisms found in familiar, domesticated creatures, such as cats, birds, and dogs. It’s impressive to see how realism was all taken into account in order to help the player understand what the Trico is “saying.” A simple head-tilt shows confusion, perked ears convey interest, bristled feathers show hostility, and more. Even the boy, who speaks a fantasy language, communicates to the viewer quite well using his body language. He caresses his friend, stomps his feet, points, flails about, and takes a gentler tone with his companion. The game needs no subtitles or dialogue, as the action on screen speaks volumes.
The soundtrack complements the visuals perfectly. The music is never overwhelming, and it does an excellent job setting the atmosphere. There are times when the soundtrack fades to silence, leaving only the wind whispering through the ruins or the trickle of running water, while there are other times when the quiet score barely touches the background. Intense moments are amplified by powerful compositions, and the sad moments are wrapped gently in a somber score. It’s nothing to rock out to in your car, but, like the soundtrack from SotC, it sets the mood perfectly and further amplifies the thoughts and emotions of the characters on-screen.
Overall, this game is well worth the wait. It highlights patience, understanding, and compassion, while presenting a beautiful story that’s open enough to allow for creative speculation and theorizing within the community. It’s not a long game, but it doesn’t need to be; any longer, and the game would have felt artificially padded. The story is worth the effort, and the bittersweet ending is a hopeful one. If you’re a fan of Team Ico’s other works, The Last Guardian is a must-have. If you’re newcomer, this is a great game to start with.
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The Bottom Line